Loved, until death do us part
by Sharon Simpson
The past 100 years have brought dramatic change in our society in the composition of families, marriage, divorce and remarriage. For many seniors, marrying in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s meant a life-long commitment to each other. At that time, no-fault divorce did not exist in Canada.
My friend was the only kid from a divorced family in her whole church. This was in the 1970’s. When her father left again with another woman, her mother finally said it was enough. The church met to decide if her mother could continue to participate in the church community. They decided she could. Thank God for that decision. She had been abandoned and betrayed by the one who promised he would stand by her side. She did not need to be abandoned and betrayed by the community of faith who would be her support and friendship for the rest of her life. She walked through the process with her church family in grace. It must have been so hard.
An elderly friend shared with me about how she lived in an abusive marriage. Desiring to do what was right, she stayed with him for the whole marriage. Cruel, she said. A philanderer. It wasn’t faith that held her in the marriage, she wasn’t a believer in those days. No, it was pressure from her own expectations, society’s expectations and wanting life to be normal for her children. When he passed away suddenly, she said that a weight of stress and pain was lifted. She was full of relief and gratitude that he was gone.
Today, marriage and divorce are a part of the fabric of all of our communities. Most elderly seniors have walked with their children or grandchildren through a divorce. The pain, financial stress and deep losses are wounds that never fully heal.
This year there will be many platinum and diamond wedding anniversaries of couples who married in 1948 and 1958. They married in their 20’s and are now in their 80’s and 90’s. For many, this milestone is one of gratitude, knowing that many of their peers have lost their spouse and were not able to be together for this length of time. They celebrate each other and their lifelong partnership.
When my daughter was 19, she asked me, “Mom, what do you think about 19 year-olds getting married?” She had a boyfriend who was also 19. I answered, “I never think about 19 year-olds getting married.” They married later that year. Smile. When she was 20, she worked for a year at the Menno Place campus of care in recreation. It was during that year of enjoying time with elderly seniors that she realized that because she married so young, her marriage could make it to the platinum anniversary – 70 years. It was a hopeful knowledge for her – one that became important to her as she watched how elderly couples navigated their lives together.
Recently, we visited with some relatives whose lives do not intersect any faith community. We shared the photos of our son’s recent wedding and the joy of the whole event. During the time of sharing and enjoying the memories together, our relative said that her children who are tweens had never been to a wedding. She said that most of the people in her life move in together, so there are no big celebrations. She said it with a sense of loss. She wished her kids could experience the joy and celebration at a wedding.
It was a new thought to me that a segment of our society could grow up and not be involved, even as a guest, at a wedding. Weddings are becoming less common. In 1981, Stats Canada tells us that 93.7 percent of couples were married while 6.3 percent were common-law partners. By 2011, this had become 19.9 percent. Why are couples choosing to live together instead of marry? The answer is a complicated combination: the cost of starting out life together; a lack of religious belief; a misunderstanding that it is less messy to get out; and painful marriage examples of the previous generation.
Our society has inadvertently taken a pass on saying and hearing the very special vows that echo between a couple on their wedding day – the vows that are not only key to their own future, but key to our communities, our churches, our families, “… in good times and in bad; in sickness and in health; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer, until death do us part.”
We need to say these words, to hear them said. Hearing these vows reminds us of the core fundamental needs we have as humans – to be loved no matter what is happening in life around us. This need becomes greater and greater when life takes a turn and we feel helpless or dependent. We need each other in exactly the same way that these wedding vows describe committed and life-long love.
For those couples who shared their vows in 1948 and 1958, they could not have envisioned the challenges that they would face. Not only did they need each other, they needed the larger community around them. The divorced woman in her church needed that church to support her. The kid from a divorced family needed the church to support and love her. The elderly woman who lived through a cruel marriage needs support.
Wedding vows are special for the bride and groom, but they also echo what we all need in our lives, not just in marriage. We all need to know that we will be loved and cared for when life is going well and when it has taken a turn for the worse. We need to know that someone will love us even if our kidneys fail or our vision is deteriorating. We want to know that we are loved when we behave kindly and gently – but also, when chronic pain or relentless stress brings out the worst parts of our nature. We need to know we will not be abandoned.
We need to know that we are loved until death do us part.
Sharon Simpson is the director of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Home in Abbotsford, BC.